Why Driverless Cars Will Make Your Life Perfect

Autonomous cars could one day make your commute safer, faster, and easier on the environment.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Jan. 31, 2014, midnight

Auto ex­perts don’t know when cars will be truly hu­man-proof — but they prom­ise that day is com­ing.

“[We could have] fully autonom­ous vehicles by 2018, 2020,” said Cath­er­ine Mc­Cul­lough, who heads the In­tel­li­gent Car Co­ali­tion. But Audi’s Brad Stertz says cars that can travel start-to-fin­ish without a hu­man hand touch­ing the wheel are “a gen­er­a­tion away at the earli­est.”

Whenev­er they do ar­rive, the people design­ing to­mor­row’s cars prom­ise they’ll be safer, cheap­er, and more ef­fi­cient once they no longer need someone at the helm.

SAFETY

The first thing every driver­less-car ad­voc­ate brings up is the tech­no­logy’s safety be­ne­fits. A full 90 per­cent of ac­ci­dents, they love to say, are a res­ult of hu­man er­ror. Ro­bot cars don’t lose fo­cus or get sleepy, they re­act in mil­li­seconds, and they have eyes in the back of their head. “One of the things com­puters are really good at is do­ing stuff re­pet­it­ively, con­stantly re­peat­ing these scen­ari­os,” Ford’s Greg Stevens said.

And while ro­bot cars today can mon­it­or their sur­round­ings mil­lions of times per second, they’ll be­come even more safe once the tech­no­logy be­comes more wide­spread. Today’s driver­less cars op­er­ate on re­ac­tion and pre­dic­tion. Ford is work­ing with MIT, Stevens said, to “build mod­els for those vehicles around us and those people around us. About where they might move so that we have prob­ab­il­it­ies for where they end up.” The tech­no­logy will learn the cap­ab­il­it­ies of the cars around it, de­tect clues from the way they’re driv­ing, and factor in en­vir­on­ment­al factors like up­com­ing exits.

As more autonom­ous cars hit the road, they will be­gin to com­mu­nic­ate and tell each oth­er where they’re go­ing. Rather than see­ing and pre­dict­ing, cars will be get­ting con­stant up­dates on where sur­round­ing traffic is plan­ning to move. “There will be more of a role in the fu­ture for an­onym­ized, ag­greg­ated data,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “This data will help get every­body a pic­ture of what’s go­ing on.”

Cars will also be­gin shar­ing in­form­a­tion about their sur­round­ings. If, for in­stance, a sink­hole opened up a mile down the road, your car would know that al­most in­stantly, reroute, and hop off the next exit in seconds. “You would have a huge num­ber of cars that could give real-time in­form­a­tion,” Stertz said. “Right now we use prim­it­ive tools for that. You’re get­ting old in­form­a­tion.”

As the cars mon­it­or the road, they’ll also be keep­ing an eye on their oc­cu­pants. If a driver has a heart at­tack or passes out, the car can safely pull to the side and call for help. And if a crash does oc­cur, the car can im­me­di­ately no­ti­fy emer­gency per­son­nel, telling them im­pact speed, loc­a­tion and the con­di­tion of pas­sen­gers.

Fur­ther down the road, autonom­ous cars could help put an end to in­tox­ic­ated driv­ing. Cur­rent rules gen­er­ally re­quire drivers to be be­hind the wheel, alert, and ready to take over at any time. And auto­makers are hes­it­ant to sug­gest their tech­no­logy could al­low people to overim­bibe. But as the tech­no­logy ad­vances, it could one day provide a fail-safe if the driver can’t handle the vehicle safely. “There are some com­plic­ated leg­al ques­tions around it, but I cer­tainly think it’s a pos­sib­il­ity,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

EF­FI­CIENCY

Of course, the first pitch to con­sumers will in­clude the time cur­rently lost to traffic jams and long com­mutes. That could be a thing of the past. While car own­ers won’t be able to nap in the back­seat just yet, car­makers want them to be able to be pro­duct­ive on an oth­er­wise wasted com­mute.

Not only will time spent in the car be more pro­duct­ive, it will de­crease al­to­geth­er. Mc­Cul­lough cited the “ac­cor­di­on ef­fect” — drivers rub­ber­neck­ing, re­act­ing to oth­ers’ er­rat­ic be­ha­vi­or, and com­pound­ing bad situ­ations. Minus the hu­man ele­ment, traffic will flow much more smoothly. Even if 10 per­cent of vehicles are autonom­ous, she said, traffic will im­prove drastic­ally.

As cars get bet­ter at hand­ling traffic situ­ations, many think they’ll be­gin to speed up as well. Rais­ing speed lim­its “de­pends on the politi­cians,” Stertz said, “but i think it’s a le­git­im­ate top­ic for dis­cus­sion…. It’s one of the things that’s worth reex­amin­ing when the cars are able to show they can help with the safety is­sue.”

After your com­mute through traffic is taken care of, your car will be able to handle park­ing as well, drop­ping you off at the front of your of­fice — or, say, a sports sta­di­um — then driv­ing off to find a park­ing spot on its own. All in all, “they’re go­ing to move people more quickly from one place to an­oth­er,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

SAV­INGS

The more su­per-safe cars take the road, the easi­er it will be for city plan­ners. Autonom­ous vehicles, at least ac­cord­ing to one study, will be able to safely drive just feet from each oth­er, quad­rupling high­way ca­pa­city. “It would make it easi­er on mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies to plan for and pay for road in­fra­struc­ture,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

The sav­ings won’t just be lim­ited to loc­al gov­ern­ments. As cars take more ef­fi­cient routes and spend less time id­ling in traffic, their own­ers will cut back on their fuel con­sump­tion. “Smooth­er traffic flows and less time stuck in traffic [res­ult in] sav­ings for the driver,” Stertz said.

That’s also good for the en­vir­on­ment. “The amount of fuel that can be saved, the amount of car­bon emis­sions that can be saved … I think we are be­gin­ning to see that,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “The en­vir­on­ment­al aware­ness is be­gin­ning to grow.”

We don’t know just when all of these be­ne­fits will be real­ized. Some of them may come well be­fore oth­ers. And a lot of it will de­pend on gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. But auto­makers em­phas­ize that their autonom­ous cars won’t hit the road un­til they’re ready to deal with all as­pects of driv­ing. “What our en­gin­eers tell us is that these sys­tems “¦ have to be fool­proof,” said BMW’s Dave Buch­ko. “They have to be able to handle any situ­ation.”

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